Silence as a practice

George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, says silence is a diminishing national resource. We assert that we despise noise, and yet we generate so much of it. While getting gas for my car this morning, the young man next to me had his car stereo cranked up and his driver’s side door open so he could bathe himself (and everyone else) in the beat. I’m agog at those I encounter on my drive to work who are listening to the headbanging kind of music that makes me want to veer off of a cliff. How can people begin the morning with that? To me, it’s like inviting chaos to the start of the day.

We complain of noise pollution but crank up our lawnmowers on Saturday mornings. We stand outside at our cars chattering in the middle of the night when sound carries so fluidly, unaware of those we are keeping awake. To be honest, I’m guilty of leaving a television on in the kitchen simply for the grounding voices seem to provide. I love a nice, loud Zumba class at my local ballroom studio, where the sound system puts us into step even when most of us are world-class klutzes. The truth is noise is a stimulant. It pumps us up. It signals to us there is some kind of life going on around us—not always the kind we want, but noise means people are present, and we crave connection. Noise is addictive. How often have you heard someone say of a place, “It was too quiet.” What do they mean? What do you mean when you say it?

“Instead of being against noise,” says George Prochnik, “I think we need to begin making a case for silence.” Silence is not the complete absence of sound. There’s noise everywhere—even if it’s only the beat of our own hearts. Silence is that pulling down of the distraction and decibel level to a quiet state of mind where we can truly hear ourselves think. Here’s what I know: some people can’t stand their own thoughts. They have no place to take them. There’s been no development of an inner life.

Nourish an inner life. Embrace silence. 

Perfectly Ordinary

Here's what I like about getting older--my own getting older, anyway: I'm discarding a lot of crippling thinking. I don't buy in to the pushy, relentless, rigorous notions of success that are so talked-about and blogged over. I am sick up to my ears of the ubiquitous platitudes that plaster our days: "YOU are the only person standing in the way of your success!" (No, sometimes it's my father with Alzheimer's or an overwhelming mound of debt.) "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" (Unless it weakens you considerably.)

I don't see success as spectacularism. Yes, I like exceptionality. I believe we're all unique. I believe in sharing that uniqueness and, when necessary, standing out in ways that show people that uniqueness. One of my living mentors and exemplars has a saying: "It takes so little to be above average," and I agree with that, particularly in a world in which slovenliness and a complete lack of common sense is pervasive.

But everyone is not spectacular. Everyone is not going to--nor are they capable of--being extraordinary and phenomenal. Many of us are merely ordinary, and how sad that our culture has come to equate "ordinary" with "loser." All of those sad contestants trying out for "American Idol" left with their tails between their legs labeled as such, unhappy that they couldn't get into the ranks of the staggeringly impressive. That's what we've become--a constant, never-ending series of tryouts for some version of "American Idol," and if you don't get picked, well, it's your own fault for not realizing you are committing the cultural sin of being just okay.

Guess what? Ordinary is pretty darn beautiful. I'm quite impressed with the ordinary people who make a tasty nonfat no-foam latte, the ordinary mechanic who works on my car, ordinary acquaintances I enjoy seeing at business meetings who brighten my professional life. I like ordinary days. I don't know why we can't be grateful for an ordinary marriage when so many have dismal ones, or why we don't see being an ordinary family as a blessing. My family was pretty darn ordinary and I turned out okay. Yes, there was dysfunction--an alcoholic/drug addicted brother (which I wrote about in my book, The Prodigal Brother: Making Peace with Your Parents, Your Past, and the Wayward One in Your Family), but guess what? That's ordinary these days. Hardly any family has escaped being touched by drugs, or alcoholism, or abuse of some kind, or mental illness, or disease . . . and yet, like ordinary people, we make it through.

Instead of focusing on the things that make me feel inadequate and zeroing in on my flaws, I honestly make effort to avoid them or simply ignore them. If I can't do anything about them--can't afford that neck lift just yet, can't change jobs right now, can't stop the world so I can get off--I have to find my happy place inside and go with the flow until things change, and circumstances are always subject to change. I fuel myself on that hope and pop the gear into drive and keep rolling. Others are far more driven to hit the heights of success no matter what the toll. More power to them. I'm taking time to enjoy ordinary pleasures and be delighted by ordinary joys. Join me?

Bombs are flying everywhere

I went into my local Barnes & Noble bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and felt almost assaulted by the titles of books displayed prominently that included the f-bomb. No less than three books with the bomb in the title had slapped me by the time I made it to the information desk.

I am compelled to ask--what is it, oh Author, that you feel can only be communicated with this word? Is your vocabulary so limited, your ability to communicate so reduced, that this is the only way you can express something emphatically and with emotion? Or are you going to tell me there's nothing emphatic there, there's nothing emotional at all in your choice of words? You just like it. You think it's funny and eye-catching and OH. SO. DIFFERENT.

You are so different that you are part of a trend. Wow. Congratulations on being so cutting edge that the title of your work can't even be announced in most company--I won't even say "polite company," because polite is clearly something you consider worthless. That title can't be announced on most radio and television shows, can't be displayed in most libraries, and even the current vulgarity of our culture will prevent most people from stating the full title. You have proudly announced to the vulgar culture that you are hand-in-hand with it, you will pander to it, and you delight in it. Yeee haaaa! Go ahead, then. Enjoy that distinction.

(I went, by the way, to purchase Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin. Absolutely brilliant, very strange and wonderful, translated from the Russian, written by a man with deep knowledge of Russian medieval history. He knows lots of words, thankfully.)

The Every Day Battle

In the spring of 2007, I reached the moment of truth regarding my weight. In a visit to my doctor, I was horrified to find I was well over 200 pounds. My diet of choice, which had worked pretty well for me for some time, was just not doing the job anymore. To be honest, maybe that charge belonged to me—I’ve never been a fan of exercise, mostly subscribing to the kind of greeting card humor that rang true: “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes.” 

I was overweight as a child. Weight has been a lifelong struggle. When I was in my teens, I silently vowed that if I ever reached 200 pounds, I would kill myself. I realize that for many people who are seriously overweight, 200 pounds was a long time ago, but does it matter? I felt like a cow. My size 16 clothes were hateful and shopping was humiliating. I resented my body. It seemed to have its own personality—demanding, hysterical, devious, childish. I couldn’t rein it in.

So here I was at the doctor’s office, asking what in the world I could do if the diet that at least held the fat dragon at bay had stopped working? “Just try something else,” she said, “something different.” A Weight Watchers group was starting at work, and I was desperate to try anything, because I truly did fear I might commit suicide. In the 10-week program, I lost 20 pounds. I was back under 200 (barely) but now had a little incentive, so I kept going in 20-pound increments. Each time I’d say, “Okay, that wasn’t so hard,” and I’d stick with it. I did this until I had dropped 85 pounds. I had not been this weight since I was 12 years old.

It took me 2 years to get there. I started to look ill. I had never been thin and I wanted to know what it felt like to wear a size 2 for a while. I’ve put that behind me, but I found out that maintenance is way, WAY harder than losing. I mean that. Since reaching a weight in 2009 I’d longed for all my life, I’ve gained 15 or 20 pounds, and sometimes that sends me into serious depression. It’s very hard to get used to this body being acceptable. I exercise. I started lifting weights six months ago, and that seems to help a great deal. “Find something you love to do,” the experts tell us. My problem is  there is nothing I “love” to do. Exercise is a detestable but necessary function. I enjoy riding a Trikke (check it out—, but getting my act together to do it is still a chore. Because significant physical activity was not a regular part of my growing-up years (save gym class in junior high and high school), it never became a habit. I must do it as though my life depends on it or I simply won’t do it. What has become a habit is beating myself up about this, even though I've resolved this year to stop doing that.

If you have never been significantly overweight, you don’t understand. People say, “You look GOOD!” I know how crazy I must sound. This is a mental block that many of us who have lost a lot of poundage deal with. It is a daily battle—one I guess I consider worth it, because I get up and fight it every day.

The Way

I'm making some resolutions. Big ones. First, I resolve to stop beating myself up for not getting it right (whatever "it" is). I resolve to stop killing myself trying to be a success, fulfill my potential, and prove I have something to offer the world. I resolve to rest inside and embrace serendipity, chance, surprise, and the joy of discovery. I resolve to stay at peace as much as is within my power. I resolve to refuse (unless God speaks to me) to connect with people who don't like me or who want me to be something I don't want to be. I resolve to refuse to be rushed or feel obligated. I resolve to meet each day open to whatever the Holy Spirit leads me to, and to be grateful for good gifts--even ones that don't come packaged up with a bow on top. I resolve a year of freedom.

I don't know how long my resolve will hold out. It's my plan, my goal. I'm sure I'll fail at times. I'm sure I'll fall back into a mode of defensiveness, fearful sometimes of what others think of me if I don't play the game. I was told last year that I should "say 'Yes' to God," implying that because I wasn't jumping as high as I possibly could, I was thus saying "No." To God. Seriously. I felt like a complete loser in that person's eyes. I thought to myself, "I hope I never encourage someone right into depression."

I'm just done with efforts to put myself somewhere I may not need to be. I'm not saying I won't make attempts to do well and do my best--I always mean to do my best, because I believe that ultimately, I work for the Lord, not for the humans who have titles indicating they are my bosses--but I'm done with being made to feel if I don't do exactly what others feel I should be doing to prove my worth and value, I therefore have none.

A plaque in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle says this: "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown and he replied, Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of GOD, that shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way."

THAT is my way in 2015, and beyond. Happy New Year to all!

You get what you pay for

I finish my workout at Retro Fitness and go to the front desk to purchase an iced drink. There's no one behind the counter; a potential customer is being given a tour. Fair enough.

Sitting at the counter, though, is one of the staff members. She has an array of papers, an open portfolio, an overstuffed wallet, and an insanely cluttered open purse spread out around her. She had lost the combination to the lock she used on her locker while she exercised. 

Few of the employees of this gym dress as though they care about how they look and, to be fair, few of the patrons care about their appearance, either. It's a gym, after all; we're all getting sweaty and red-faced and stringy-haired. We all look pretty awful, particularly after we've spent an hour on an elliptical or lifting weights.

But it's not unreasonable to expect the staff to look presentable. This young woman, who is very nice,  always looks like she simply rolls out of bed, pulls on her athletic pants and shirt, slaps on a wig, and heads out the door. It's quite possible she sleeps in those clothes. 

She asked me if I needed something, and I told her I wanted a beverage. She said, "I'll get that for you." She then proceeded to continue looking for her lost combination.

I glanced at the clock. I had only five minutes before I had to leave in order to make it home in time to place an important phone call.

A minute passed, then two. Mumbling to herself, the young woman, exemplifying the truth of "what you see is what you get," finally gathered up all of her papers, dropped the wallet into her purse, and walked away.

I left, drinkless. Add to this an aging locker room and bathroom floor that, even though it is clean, appears filthy, and floor space so crowded with equipment that to exit the facility requires action movie dodges and twists. The only reason I stay is it's close to home and so darn cheap and all I want is to use the free weights three times a week.

What should I expect, anyway, for $20 a month? But here's the thing: you can be low-end but still provide a great experience. It doesn't have to be this way. If Retro Fitness simply stayed on top of staff professionalism, changed out the degrading flooring, and removed one or two of the lesser-used machines, it won't be on par with an enormously expensive gym offering out-of-this-world accoutrements, but it could be good for the price. Too bad the management does not think this way.

It's not hard to get a vocabulary

Character glows in the dark. Give yourself a good name.  Ad for Heineken beer

Oh, how I wish I had thought up that quote! It’s an effective double meaning—the quality of a good beer, like human character, shines. Character is highly noticeable, particularly because it seems to be markedly diminished in this day and age. It honestly seems that a majority of people don’t care how they act, as though this is some badge of glorious autonomy—proudly not caring what others think,waving their own flag of independence. (Interesting how they insist they don’t care what other people think of them, but they want to be sure everybody thinks of them as free from concerns of being thought of.)  Let’s just take some small indication of the erosion of character . . . hmmm . . . how about what used to be called cussin’ and swearin’ but is now referred to as expletives, dissing, or (being specific) dropping the f-bomb. 

People who have a command of language can express themselves without expletives, because they know other effective words. To say something is "f-ing great" is not going to convey an event or a moment was "spectacular," "astonishing," "beyond my ability to comprehend what was going on." (Lose "awesome." It's so overused it now means the same thing as "fine.") Drop the f-bomb and you sound crass, which means gross, obtuse, and stupid. Unable to complete a sentence without vulgarity? You're in danger of sounding uneducated and perceived as unmannered. Those who write for television absolutely love to throw around all they can get away with. I had to stop watching a favorite show because every sentence had the word sh** in it. Why? It didn't add to the drama at all. "Son-of-a-b****" is the favorite expletive of TV show writers. It teaches everyone how okay it is to sound like a truck driver (my apologies to truck drivers who know how to speak).

Isn’t anybody bored with it? It’s like celebrities who love to tell us how different and special they are because they are sexually more free than the rest of the universe and, oh yeah, they think the naked body is beautiful, particularly theirs. They think they set themselves apart by saying, “I like to push the envelope.” No kidding—just like everyone around you who also pushes the envelope. Here’s a press release: to really stand out as unique, be a respectful, thoughtful, polite, interesting, non-self-absorbed, quietly charitable person. Who doesn’t cuss or swear or drop bombs. And combs his or her hair for interviews. That would be so different it would be almost unbelievable. Reporters would fall all over themselves trying to get to the bottom of such envelope-pushing behavior. What publicity that would be for a celebrity or two! They would practically glow in the dark. 

So very well said

“Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”

“Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction.”

“This is the purest expression of me: to express excellence in the most inclusive, generous, and hospitable way possible.”

                  Danny Meyer, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

Hospitality is extending favor to guests and strangers, treating them with warmth and generosity. What a concept: to act hospitably toward all. When did we lose this? Why don't we care about being warm, generous people?

Did I miss something?

I guess I'm out of touch, but I always understood a working relationship with my boss to be that I should figure out what the boss wants and do that. In the world of employees and bosses, bosses rule, and the best way to maintain harmony and, if the goal is there, someday become a boss, then the idea is to refrain from being antagonizing, counterproductive, dismissive, and arrogant.

Don't misunderstand--I am fully aware that many bosses make work difficult. "So much of what we call management," said Peter Drucker, "consists in making it difficult for people to work." I've had my share of foolish, obtuse bosses who made my job significantly harder because they didn't know what I did or how I did it. But I did understand that it was essentially my job to please them. 

Someday soon, I hope, I will find an agent for my book Sheer Living Hell: Surviving a Tormenting Work Environment, where I address working with a superior who is evil and often psychopathic. In the meantime though, I'm simply noting that in most cases, we have pretty regular bosses with pretty regular faults. They may have personalities that rub us the wrong way or their knowledge of how we do our jobs may be spotty at best. They may ask us to do things we find ridiculous. Sometimes, they allow us to argue our positions; sometimes they do not, and frustration results. 

But folks, for the most part, when the boss tells you he or she wants to you learn Excel, then by golly, learn Excel. Don't go back to your workstation and decide you are so stinking perfect you don't need to do anything the boss requires. When the boss tells you they want something done in a particular way, don't cry the blues about his or her perfectionism. Just do it the way the boss wants it. (Cry the blues privately with a trusted friend, but get over it.) 

You may know more than your boss. You may have a better grasp on what is needed or necessary. You may believe no one else but the boss cares about some tiny detail. So what? You're not the boss. When you're the boss, you can be as unreasonable and insane as you now find the one for whom you work. What's funny is when you get there and act in what you consider a perfectly reasonable way, you'll find that someone on your staff will consider you a loser. That someone is still an employee, though, and it will be that person's responsibility to discover what it is you want and then do it. 

It's not hard to understand. It's life. It's about acting like a professional.

Emotions at work . . . in so many ways

Remember the last time your flight was canceled and you tried to speak with a gate agent who acted as though she were holding onto secret information about the flight that had to be guarded with her life? Just recalling it can create instant emotion. Can I get some folks in my corner who have spoken with “customer service” agents in a call center who clearly do not grasp the meaning of the job title? You want to rip the phone right out of the wall. And speaking of the phone, I don't even have to ask how you feel about telemarketers who won’t take no for an answer and keep right on reading that script. And these are people you don’t even know!

On the flip side, how about going on an interview, filled with nervousness and that inexplicable dark cloud that tells you, “They won’t like you,” and finding a hiring manager who is kind and has a great sense of humor? You leave feeling like a million bucks, all because someone brought a bit of emotional lightness to the interaction. There’s not a person reading this who hasn’t been a witness to a coworker or acquaintance (or even strangers) being raked over the coals by some superior throwing their authority around like a hammer. You know what happens: sympathy and empathy rise up in you and, if you’re like me, you rise to the person’s defense. I used to work for a university president who could slice and dice her employees into utter self-doubt and despair. She’d end by saying, “That was just direct communication. Don’t attach any emotion to it.” Yeah, right. “I pride myself on being unemotional,” people say, clearly very proud of their pride. While I understand such a personality, my thought is, “Why?” What’s the payoff? 

To be sure, we cannot walk around at work with our hearts on our sleeves, and I’m not suggesting we do. After all, corporate life is about business, not therapy. But if we ignore the fact that all relationships are emotional we will create unnecessary roadblocks. We will not communicate our wishes and expectations effectively. We will not understand why no one cooperates with us, or why people respond with silence or irritation or even hostility. We’ll wonder why our suggestions fall flat. We will create resistance because we are blind to the role and effect of emotions in every interaction. 

There are emotions in the workplace. You know there are. Do you know how to identify them and deal with them skillfully? Because they're not going away.